The Surprise Story of Jai Miller

Paradise lost

Stanford fans are still reeling from the loss of two-sport signee Jai Miller this week to the Major League Baseball draft. He was all set to star in both football and basketball on The Farm, but in a matter of hours Tuesday was drafted and then signed by the Florida Marlins. Here is the complete story on how this played out, and what the future holds for both Miller and Stanford.

Don't say you weren't warned.  In the most recent issue of The Bootleg Magazine (May/June 2003 / Vol. 1, No. 10), I wrote in an article entitled "Hoops Status Report" that the June MLB First-Year Player Draft was an important event for the future of Jai Miller and Stanford Athletics:

But before Jai Miller suits up to help Stanford basketball or football, there is one hurdle to pass that has slipped under the radar of Cardinalmaniacs. Miller recently concluded his senior season on the diamond and batted an even .500 (19 RBI, 6 HR, 24/24 SB), while showing off standout defense as a rangy center fielder. He had scouts visit him multiple times in Selma, AL this year and is traveling to Mississippi in May for a workout in front of 18-20 pro scouts. He has the ability that could land him in a tempting situation in the June Major League Baseball draft, though Chad Goldberg reminds us in this issue that Stanford commits are tough to sign out of high school (see cover story). "I don't think Stanford has too much to worry about, but this is something I have to check out," Miller says. Despite his reassurance, worrying is all the Cardinal coaches will do until he enrolls for classes in September.

Thus while we watched the 2003 edition of the pro baseball draft for current Stanford baseball juniors and seniors, as well as a cadre of high school signees promised to attend The Farm starting in the fall, we also kept one eye open for the unpredictable call that might come for Miller.  It came as a shock when the recent Selma (AL) graduate was called in the 4th round of the draft Tuesday, which quickly teed off a chain of events that within a matter of hours would end his Stanford athletic future.  However, these events had already been set in motion weeks earlier...

How It All Unfolded

When I first heard about Jai Miller in the spring of 2002, I immediately internalized that he was a three-sport star and not just a two-sport recruit.  Though his publicity in the Internet world of recruiting services was all about football and basketball, the buzz in Alabama was that baseball might be his best sport.  But in today's world of year-round prep athletics, it is impossible to give multiple sports their due 12 months a year.  Baseball was the sport that suffered most, as his summer was filled with AAU basketball events from June through August; breaks were filled with football camps.  Miller's baseball contemporaries meanwhile played in summer leagues which buoyed their skills and elevated their visibility to scouts and services.

"I always felt baseball was where I had the best potential, but I had put the least amount of time into it," the Alabama athlete explains.  But with his high school football and basketball behind him at the conclusion of his senior seasons, Miller had a little more to give to baseball this spring and enjoyed a standout season.  Beyond just his offensive stats noted above, the athletic and rangy outfielder puts on a defensive show that equally impresses scouts.  He has great speed and a cannon for an arm.

Stanford fans may not have grasped Miller's prowess on the diamond and as such are stunned that he could be rated so highly as a 4th round pick, which by comparison is not far behind where Cardinal juniors Ryan Garko and John Hudgins were selected - both college All-Americans.  And his 4th round selection appears to put him in a different stratosphere than his fellow high school seniors signed with Stanford baseball, as compared to their 36th round and beyond selections.  "I knew I was going to be drafted, but not that high," Miller admits.

But that comparison is not entirely fair.  Indeed, the likes of Greg Reynolds and Jim Rapoport saw their stock drop off a cliff when Major League clubs saw grave concerns of their signability.  Last year the Seattle Mariners struck out in very public and embarrassing fashion when they drafted John Mayberry, Jr. in the first round but were unable to come to terms with the freakish 6'5" offensive talent.  And for years the competing Stanford education has made for tough signings.  Reynolds was named a top-two round talent but slid incredibly to the 41st round precisely because of signability concerns.

And for the same reasons, Jai Miller was taken Tuesday early in the draft.  "The [Florida] Marlins and I had been talking for a while, and they told me that I would be taken between the 4th and 7th rounds," he reveals.  Why would they take him so high when all other Stanford signees fell off a cliff?  Because he had negotiated with them for many weeks and had reached an agreement whereby Miller would sign a contract forgoing any athletics in college if the Marlins took him in one of those rounds.  As such, the Alabama three-sport star was the polar opposite of other Stanford cases: he was a known quantity who would sign, despite his intentions of enrolling at The Farm.

As such, Miller was even more signable than many top high school prospects who have pledged to attend less prominent academic institutions.  The important conclusion then is that he should not be compared directly with draft positions of other Stanford baseball players or high schoolers.  His was a rather unique situation.

Even more unique was the singular pursuit he enjoyed from Florida during the past month-plus.  "The Marlins were the only team that really worked on me," the signee allows.  "Others saw my Stanford scholarship and backed off a while ago.  The Marlins had worked me out twice, and things went from there."

It is only natural for some observers to see this stunning turn of events and conjure their own theories of how this transpired behind the scenes.  Was this Jai Miller's plan all along, effectively using Stanford Athletics to garner a letter of admission?  Did he have his eye on pro baseball all along?  Were these machinations quietly achieved behind the collective back of the coaching staffs?

Most signs though point to a more innocent set of events and intentions, contrary to such scheming daydreams.  All my dealings with Jai Miller, and they have been numerous for a full 12 months now, have consistently displayed a very mature and forthcoming young man.  As such I take him at his word, and believed him when he reported early this spring that his draft status was not likely high enough to concern Stanford.  He was enjoying one last fling with baseball, but only the last few weeks really opened the door to this opportunity.

"We have this thing called the East/West Lion's Club, where the best players in the state compete at the end of the season in a series of games," he begins to explain.  "Two weeks ago I would have told you I'd go to Stanford, but as these games went on, I truly saw how I stacked up against the best.  There were players with pro draft potential and guys going to Division I schools, and I just dominated.  I went 3-for-5 in the final game, with a home run, a triple, a single, two stolen bases, two runs, two RBI and a put-out at home plate from center field.  I used that to evaluate myself versus the best players in the state, and it was eye-opening."

During those games, a transformation occurred in how Miller saw himself as a baseball player.  His confidence rose, and the discussions with the Marlins matched pace.  Stanford was not unaware of these proceedings, though, with the promised Cardinal receiver talking regularly with offensive coordinator and receivers coach David Kelly.  "He's a really genuine person," Miller says of his coach-no-longer-to-be.  "He wants what's best for me, but he thought [pro baseball] just wasn't best for me.  I can't say enough about him and what kind of man he is."

When draft day came, the end was swift and without much drama.  Miller was selected at the high end of the range the Marlins had indicated to him.  A representative came to his house to meet with him and his grandparents at 4:30pm.  He signed at approximately 7:45pm.  According to Miller, his contract includes $160k that is earmarked to pay for four years of Stanford education.  Beyond the compensation for his lost scholarship money he says that the remainder of his contract is "mid six-figures."

Maybe the toughest part of the day was the phone call to the Stanford coaches, as he talked with Kelly and head coach Buddy Teevens.  "I talked to them [Tuesday] night and it was hard," Miller discloses.  "Coach Kelly took it the hardest because he's been the closest to me.  It was another tough decision.  It's hard on either side.  I just know how much the fans and coaches were looking forward to my competing at Stanford.  You don't know really what to say.  It happened really fast."

Miller's (Stanford) Future

One of the great difficulties for Major League clubs who hope to sign Stanford-bound high schoolers is that they are pushing a nomadic life in the minor leagues that for the most part is mutually exclusive with their intended Stanford education.  And that is why it can take high six-figures or even millions to help sway them from the invaluable Stanford diploma.  But in the case of Jai Miller, the Marlins are at least initially making an effort to let him pursue his education.  He reports that the organization is allowing him to study at Stanford this autumn and then winter quarter, afterward reporting for spring training.  Although after the first year, "we'll have to see where I am with baseball before we'll know when I can be at school," Miller says.

Before that he has a Class A rookie league to which he will soon report, starting in fact June 12 in Jupiter, Florida.  The season lasts until August 31, which is a good three weeks before he would start freshman orientation with the rest of the Stanford Class of 2007.  That orientation will not be free of difficult moments, though, as he assimilates himself to the University where he had dreamed of playing football and basketball.  As he starts classes, 90-plus student-athletes he thought would be his teammates will already be playing their third game of the football season.  Basketball will be just weeks away from starting their official practices.

"I definitely think there will be some awkwardness, knowing I could play but won't be able to," he forecasts.  "But if baseball doesn't work out, I would like to play football."  Miller goes on to cite a string of notable college football starts, like Quincy Carter and Kelley Washington, who started on the gridiron late after an unsuccessful tour of minor league baseball duty.  But that brings up a complication which Miller had not completely thought through.

In the famed cases like Chris Weinke of Florida State, a college student-athlete may indeed start competing in football at an older age after a stint in pro baseball.  Only your college baseball eligibility is wiped out if professional baseball is your sole non-amateur experience.  But in a case like Weinke's, the athlete in question never started college until after his baseball run.  The NCAA gives college student-athletes five years to complete four years of eligible competition, but the clock on those five years starts as soon as you begin your first day of college studies.

That means that if Miller starts school at Stanford this September, the NCAA clock starts ticking and would expire at the end of the 2007-08 school year.  If Miller's attempts at baseball take him three years, for example, he might try to join the Stanford football team for the 2006 season, but he would have just two season of eligibility.  That fact surprised the newly signed professional baseball player, and he says that he has to investigate these rules and decide how he wants to proceed with his Stanford enrollment.  On the one hand it is clearly in his best interest educationally to start school now before he gets into year-round baseball too deep; on the other hand, he may be wary of burning his years of football eligibility and thus cut off his athletic avenues in the event of an unsuccessful baseball venture.  As a further complication, Stanford is not a school very cooperative in indefinitely deferring admission.  A one-year deferral is not uncommon for high school grads who want to take a year to travel, work or research, but taking several years to try your hand at pro sports before you start classes is not going to fly.

Miller also says that he has not yet talked to any Stanford administrators about the University rules on stopping out, including how they would view his completing just two quarters and thus interrupting the required corps of freshman humanities.

Implications for Stanford

For the football program, Buddy Teevens and David Kelly have just watched their receiver ranks depleted.  Miller was a unique WR talent set to join the roster because of his combination of size (6'4"), quickness and overall athleticism.  Granted, he was a high school quarterback yet to play the wideout position, so there was some projection and faith you had to maintain, but the Stanford coaching staff was rabidly excited about his future.  The closest comparison to Miller on the roster would likely be Justin McCullum, who is expected to enjoy a breakout year this fall, though Miller is a smoother athlete on the gridiron and on the hardwood (having watched both athletes play AAU hoops in high school).  If there is a mitigating factor that softens the blow in losing Jai Miller, it would be the position switch of David Lofton from quarterback to receiver.  Lofton has a lot of similar athletic attributes to the erstwhile Alabama athlete, so there is a zero-sum gain of sorts when you consider the respective gain and loss.

If you want to play hypothetical gymnastics, we can rewind time and consider who would have taken Miller's scholarship spot had the Cardinal coaches known he was lost before he signed his National Letter of Intent in early February.  There are a handful of players to consider, though my best guess is that 6'4" Canadian receiver Sam Champagne would have been the player most exclusive with respect to Miller.  In fact, I believe that the Stanford staff recruited Champagne primarily with the belief that they would move on him if they missed out on Miller.  I can't say if they would have offered, or if he would have been admitted, but he was a similar player in his size and speed.  If you want to track Champagne going forward, turn your tube to Big 10 football the next several years as the Montreal standout signed late with Michigan State.

Looking forward, Stanford now has 24 scholarship athletes enrolling this fall and presumably will be one under the NCAA's 85 scholarship limit for the season.  That is, unless Buddy Teevens opts to put a walk-on player on scholarship.  That may indeed be the case, as a good number of talented student-athletes are currently slated to walk on this fall with the program, but I would find it unlikely that an unproven walk-on would garner as valuable a scholarship as this one.  You see, in the 2004 recruiting class, Stanford may be armed with as few as 12 scholarships, and current recruiting efforts show an incredible bounty of talent early on the hook.  The chance to add one slot to that slim class would be very attractive, and in that light I would expect that a walk-on player this fall would need to show Teevens and the staff something special to earn that scholarship.  And several of the worthy returning players who originally walked on to the team have already earned scholarships (e.g. Timi Wusu, Greg Camarillo, Jared Newberry and Tim Mattran).

The impact for the basketball program is different in several respects, but equally significant.  While a football team operates with an 85-scholarship roster, and this team currently has solid numbers at the wide receiver position, basketball operates with just 13 full rides.  And more importantly, Stanford basketball is far from rife with point guards.  Mike Montgomery prefers to operate with three points at any one time on his roster, or at least a mixture of three points and skilled ballhandling guards.  With the Cardinal staff unable to sign a pure point guard in the incoming 2003 class that depletes the roster by one at the position, given the graduation this month of Julius Barnes.  Jai Miller was at least a stop-gap to give Stanford a third PG (behind Chris Hernandez and Jason Haas), and at best had the promise of being a fantastic athlete and scorer - adding some new dimensions to the position for the Card.  Now Montgomery and his staff are down to two PGs for the coming season, unless they push incoming freshman Tim Morris into the role.  The coaches however honestly believe that Morris is intrinsically a player best suited to play the wing positions.  I don't think they have the luxury of putting him into an optimal position right now, though, especially in the context that Hernandez has tenuous health issues that could subtract him from the lineup at a moment's notice.

Just as the football coaches will likely increase their nominal search for wide receivers in the 2004 class now that they have no Jai Miller, so too would the basketball coaches like to give a little more attention to the point guard search.  But the universe of elite-level PGs who have the academics and interest in Stanford is a very small one, and I don't believe that an increase in desire by Mike Montgomery can magically produce a 2004 high school senior who doesn't already exist on their recruiting radar today.  But if the Stanford hoops coaches have a choice during the summer evaluation period to watch a point guard or a wing at some event, you can bet they'll think twice and then a third time about giving extra looks at every conceivable ballhandling talent they can.

And unfortunately for Stanford basketball, the loss of Jai Miller - whom they recruited with every bit the vigor, time and effort that the football coaches gave - does not yield a scholarship silver lining for the '04 recruiting class.  Miller was to attend Stanford on a football ride, by stipulation of NCAA rules.  A similar two-sport athlete who might come into greater focus for the hoops staff is Mark Bradford.  Like his Alabama counterpart, Bradford was named a Student Sports Grid-Hoop All-American this year, though admittedly Bradford has greater demonstrated football abilities while Miller has greater proven hardwood talents.  Bradford has been a noteworthy point guard talent in Los Angeles for several years, though the Stanford coaches and most recruiting services have tabbed Miller a superior Division I prospect as a floor general.  The other key wrinkle is that Bradford is an awfully strong bet to play football as a true freshman this fall; in fact I would assess him as one of the top two most likely candidates in this incoming football class to play.  Playing football (rather than redshirting) would delay significantly delay his time and opportunity to fully participate in basketball practices, which start in mid-October.  And while a Teyo Johnson was able to get away with joining the team a little late, it's a wholly different ballgame for a freshman point guard hopeful to learn the position at Stanford with such a disadvantage.

There are also some lessons here that will be heeded by many Stanford parties in the future.  Buddy Teevens might cast a more cautious eye toward baseball prospects whom he recruits, having not just lost Miller but also losing Darin Naatjes months after being hired.  This is not to say that Teevens will be completely gun-shy toward two-sport football/baseball athletes, but he will probably conduct a deeper investigation in the future if such recruits have the potential to go the Majors straight out of high school.  The immediate recruit who comes to mind is Matt Tuiasosopo from Washington state.  The latest in the Tui clan is a serious target for the quarterback slot in the 2004 class, but the Woodinville HS multi-sport talent has been discussed as a very strong baseball prospect.

This may also unfortunately impact the Admissions Office, given that they in some small sense were "burned" here.  They extended admission to a prospective student-athlete who received not just rave reviews of support from one coaching staff, but from two.  Will they pause in the future given that they have seen Teyo Johnson leave Stanford after three years and Jai Miller pull out of all athletic competition before he ever started a class?  It's all a matter of degree, but in the ever-complex equation that is the admissions process, this has to be one more input for consideration.


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